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Independent Schools and Uncommon Standards

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Once upon a time I attended a workshop on observing and evaluating teachers. At one point the presenter, Steve Clem of the Association of Independent Schools of New England, pointedly inquired, "Of course, you are evaluating teachers against your school's published standards for effective teaching, yes? You have those, don't you?"

Everyone in the room looked at their shoes. Everyone. Displeased with my shoes and with myself as one of those in charge of our evaluation program, I started thinking about how we could do better. By the end of that school year we had our standards (see pages 9-11 here, a slightly out of date but accurate source), generated and approved by faculty in a process of which I am still inordinately proud.

It's not that we lacked for models; the National Board standards were shiny and new, and other school systems, primarily public, had theirs. Our guiding group looked at those, but we knew that going our own way was going to work best for our school.

It was an easy step to try to adapt the process to some curricular standards, or so we thought. Some faculty were clamoring for these to clarify goals and make our programs more consistent. We started out fine, but we wound up not with "standards"--when kids will know how to write a topic sentence or understand quadratic equations--so much as core characteristics of the school experience (see pp. 7-9 here). Faculty, even the clamorers, were even happier than they had been with the teaching standards.

Independent schools, in reality, are bound by any number of external standards. There are de jure standards for accreditation and even more forceful regulations pertaining to health, safety, and business practice. Even if schools don't always see them as such, the curricular underpinnings of the SAT, the ACT, and Subject Tests serve as de facto standards, at least for college prep secondary schools. (I also note that some public jurisdictions require SAT testing for high school graduation.)

Independent schools have become pretty good in recent years at generating their own internal standards, or at least language that falls somewhere between touchstone and benchmark; the point is to provide common language for both aspirations and conversations around teaching and learning. I've enjoyed seeing model after model of what schools believe their students should be able to do or what constitutes effective teaching or how the school wishes students to engage with their future (samples here, here, here, and here).

These standards and quasi-standards generally flow out of schools' missions, expressed as "mission statements" and a sine qua non for--in fact, the basis of--accreditation review. Independent schools tend to have been founded around someone's ideals and hopes for what an education should be, and these initial desiderata evolve over time, like constitutional interpretation, into mission statements. Most mission statements contain at least the kernel of a school's values, goals, and aims. And where there are aims, there should be frameworks for gauging the success of efforts to achieve them: standards.

Of course, a lofty mission statement and compelling standards on a website or in a handbook guarantee nothing. Standards, whether the Common Core in its dry specificity or a florid enumeration of the qualities of an effective teacher, mean nothing unless their working significance is clarified: What categories of endeavor are being evaluated, and by what criteria are levels of performance being measured--and who is doing the measuring, using what rubrics or tools?

Standards applied to human behavior have limits, simply because the human spirit comes in so many forms. Furthermore, there are standards, like knowing the multiplication tables, and there are standards, like being a "lifelong learner." I can test the one, but not even a detailed obituary can fully certify the other. Usable standards must be elastic enough to cover unforeseen possibilities without stretching into meaninglessness.

Above all, no standard is worth its weight in pixels if it is ignored. The challenge for an independent school, for any school promulgating worthy standards, is to honor them by purposefully and explicitly embedding them in its culture and marking progress toward achieving them: progress in student learning, in teacher growth, in institutional coherence.

Standards without strategy, without earnest effort, and without honest measurement are nothing but words.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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